Monday, July 05, 2010

Plato's Code concealed in his writings!

This sounds nuts doesn't it? Sounds just like old what's his name doesn't it? But it's been in the papers!

In fact, if you read the news accounts about this scholarly argument, you might not be very impressed. Prof. John (Jay) Kennedy might end up sounding to you just like old what's his name. And I bet the full scholarly treatment in his published article is pretty impenetrable to anyone who has not Plato in Greek.

Fortunately Prof. Kennedy was so excited about his discovery that he published two summaries on the web even before his print article came out. And taking the scholars' summary and the popular summary together you come up with something pretty amazing but not too unclear.
Here are some key passages that will give you the idea.

In antiquity, many of Plato's followers said, in various ways, that Plato wrote symbolically or allegorically, and that his true philosophy would be found in the layers of meaning underneath the surface stories he tells. In ancient religions, sects, guilds, and fraternities, it was normal to 'reserve' knowledge to initiates and Plato, they contended, had used symbols to hide his philosophy within his writings.

The view that Plato's writings contained symbols was a mainstream and sometimes dominant view for more than a thousand years: from about the time of Christ until the Renaissance. Beginning in the 1700's, theologians in Germany who emphasised rigourous and literal methods of interpretation fiercely opposed this view. They argued that there was no consistent system of symbolism in Plato's writings, and that claiming such was a sign of credulity and mystery-mongering. The ancient defenders of the symbolic approach to Plato were dubbed 'neo-Platonists' in an effort to segregate them from Plato and Platonism. The view that Plato's writings were not symbolic became the standard view among modern scholars and has remained so ever since.

I was teaching a course for philosophers on Plato's most famous book, the Republic, and another course on the history of mathematics for mathematicians, which dealt with Pythagorean mathematics and music. This was a combustible mixture. A series of insights led to the surprising conclusion that the Republic did use symbols, but that recognising and unravelling these symbols required knowledge of Pythagorean music theory.

...the musical and mathematical structures he hid in his writings show that he was committed to the radical idea that the universe is controlled not by the gods on Olympus but by mathematical and scientific law. Today we take it for granted that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, but it was a dangerous and heretical idea when it struggled for acceptance in the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and Galileo was condemned and imprisoned. After Socrates was executed for sowing doubts about Greek religion, Plato had every reason to hide his commitment to a scientific view of the cosmos. But we now know that Plato anticipated the key idea of the Scientific Revolution by some 2000 years.

... each dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral. Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale.

This musical structure can be studied rigorously because it is so regular. Subsequent work will show that other symbols are used to embed Pythagorean doctrines in the surface narratives. It is surprising that Plato could deploy an elaborate symbolic scheme without disturbing the surface narratives of the dialogues, but in this respect he does not differ from other allegorical writers like Dante or Spenser.

4. History of Pythagoreanism. The Pythagoreans were long reputed to reserve their doctrines and use secret symbols, and now we have proof. Does this up-end Burkert's view that Plato was innovative and not a proper Pythagorean? Does it shift our views of Aristotle as a reliable reporter for the history of Pythagoreanism?
6. History of Platonism. The distance between 'neo-Platonism' and Platonism has been steadily diminishing since the work of Dodds. This work implies that the reports among Plato students that he was a Pythagorean in some strong sense were correct. This reaffirms the views among some neo-Pythagoreans and neo-Platonists. How is the history of the reception of Plato now altered?
Well, as Prof. Kennedy himself says, this is just the beginning and his work will have to be verified by other scholars. What he hopes, however, is that the positive philosophy of Plato will be revealed. Kennedy, like many others, sees Plato the writer as throwing out a bunch of ideas without specifying what Plato the teacher told his students. Plato wrote in dialogues in which he is not a character, and so does not speak in his own voice in his written works. Kennedy hopes a new round of scholarship will show more of what Plato himself thought and taught.

Me, I don't read Greek, so I can't say anything except that it would be pretty exciting if this were true.

Image: What Plato said.

No comments:

Post a Comment